More than 70 Christian computer-experts gathered in a room above Smithfield Market, in London, last weekend for a 48-hour Code for the Kingdom “hackathon” (News, 9 October 2015).
The term relates to the definition of hack as a solution, or fix, rather than illegal access to computers. The participants were seeking solutions, or hacks, to some of the technical issues facing churches today.
The UK event was sponsored by the Church of England, which was encouraging the technology experts to develop solutions that would help with evangelism and discipleship. After an opening session in which participants pitched ideas, teams were formed to develop the embryonic concepts. These included a Christian dating app, and an idea to make the Bible available in closed countries.
Other ideas being worked on included an app to help churches to develop prayer chains, a programme to use open-data sources to identify the best locations for new church-plants, and an app to help people interrogate Amazon’s new Echo product; the app enables users to have a conversation with “Alexa”, an electronic brain at the heart of Echo’s electronics.
One of the experts working on the Echo app — or Skill, as Amazon calls apps — was a South African programmer, Jannie Theunissen, from the Christian programming company One Sheep. “In tech, a lot of what is being done is serving the saved,” he said. “The focus of our work is to use technology to evangelise and reach out to the lost.”
Mr Theunissen explained that there were already 30 different Bible-based Skills for the Amazon Echo, which would allow a user to ask it to read particular Bible passages. But, he said, “you already have to know a lot about the Bible to use it. You have to know that there is a John 3.16; you have to know there are versions.”
His group was working on Bible Chat, a Skill that would allow people to ask Alexa what the Bible said about specific themes. But he was convinced that Alexa couldn’t take the place of an evangelist or a real person-to-person contact. They were working on ways for Alexa to identify when to suggest a conversation with a local church minister.
Peter Killick, a software engineer with the Met Office, was working on ways to use the many different data sources — including official government data being made available for use on an “open source” basis, including Ordnance Survey and Census information, to help with church planning.
”There is lots and lots of data that exists,” he said. “The underlying point of data challenges is taking raw data . . . and processing it to add value. Data is raw numbers, and information is data with value. You can take the data and process it in certain ways to inform all sorts of decisions.”
He was keen to see technology aid evangelism. “I don’t think it does enough,” he said. “If you look at Islam, they are very good at jumping on trends in technology and twisting them to their needs. If you look at the Church, sometimes you don’t see that as much.
”The Church should be more open to using technology and the world that God has given us to forward the gospel. If there is now an online life as well as a real-world life, then we should be evangelising both.”
James Doc, a web developer with the Victoria and Albert Museum, and one of the organisers of the hackathon, said: “I don’t think that we should underestimate the role that the Church has had in using technology and being early adopters in the past.”
He cited examples as diverse as the use of the earliest printing presses to print Bibles and the installation of a telephone line at St Stephen’s, Walbrook, in London, which gave birth to the organisation that became the Samaritans.
Last weekend’s hackathon was not designed to produce finished apps or solutions. The concepts developed will be worked on over the coming weeks and months.
This article originally appeared in The Church Times